Nonrefundable freedom

Annapolis: State's lucrative bail bond businesses rally forces to defeat bills threatening their turf.

March 05, 2002

THEIR ADS FILL 10 pages in the Greater Baltimore Yellow Pages. "Why stay in jail?" one ad asks. "We'll put your feet on the street," promises another.

Indeed, Blackjack, Big Boyz, Slick Rick's and Good Fellas - these are just some of the bail bond firms' colorful names - can get almost anyone out of the pokey. That freedom, though, costs: a nonrefundable 10 percent cash deposit. If the bail amount is $50,000, you can kiss $5,000 goodbye.

Senate Bill 432 promotes a common-sense alternative to this; it will be heard at 1 p.m. Wednesday before the Judicial Proceedings Committee. A defendant could pay the 10 percent deposit directly to the court, which would refund the money - minus a service charge - once the defendant has shown up at all the hearings.

Of course, nothing would prevent defendants from dealing with a commercial bail bond firm instead if they chose to do so. But the bail bond industry is up in arms because it sees the bills as a threat to its lucrative franchise.

This bail reform is years overdue. It is disgraceful that one-third of more than 2,000 men and women being held before trial in Baltimore's jail are there simply because they cannot cough up $500 or less for bail. Many end up serving 30 days or more - at a cost of $54 a day to the taxpayers - and are found not guilty in the end.

Such long and arbitrary pretrial incarceration needlessly crowds the jail with people whose only sin may be that they are too poor to pay for their freedom. In doing so, the practice mocks the notion that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If poor defendants know they can get the money back, their families and friends are more likely to bail them out. That only makes sense.

We are gratified that Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have joined the call for reform. Like all those who value an equitable justice system, they believe Marylanders should be able to choose how they want to do their bonding.

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